The Big Sleep
Director/Studio/Author: Howard Hawks/Warner Home Video/William Faulkner
American release date: July 25, 2006 (original theatrical release 1946)
Format, Genre and length: DVD/Film Noir/114 minutes
Publisher/Industry Age Rating: NR
Overall Personal Rating: ★★★★★
Philip Marlowe’s been around. You see, he’s a private detective, so he pretty well knows the score. But you can’t always be choosy about your clients, even when they live on the right side of the tracks. After receiving a referral from an acquaintance at the DA’s office, Philip (Humphrey Bogart) goes to the home of the wealthy Sternwoods. The General is an elderly infirm man with a stoically discreet butler, and two daughters who were born later in life and who lead him a merry chase. Carmen (Martha Vickers) is wild and flirtatious, and Vivian (Lauren Bacall) is commanding and self-assured. Marlowe discovers how wild Carmen is when she playfully attempts to seduce him in the foyer.
The General likes to spend his time in the hothouse where he grows orchids—not because he likes flowers, but the warmth feels good. He’s received a threat of blackmail in the mail and he wants Marlowe to look into it. Some guy named Geiger, holding some gambling notes allegedly signed by Carmen. Marlowe agrees to look into it, but as he is leaving, the butler informs him that Mrs. Rutledge (Vivian) wishes to see him. She is curious about why Marlowe is there, but he isn’t exactly forthcoming with details, seeing as she’s not his client. And why is she concerned about a guy named Regan?
It turns out Geiger has a bookstore, so Marlowe does a little homework at the library. He then dons a foppish disguise and makes some inquiries as to certain first editions of the girl who mans the store. Her lack of basic knowledge raises his suspicions, along with the entrance of a guy with a suspicious package in a plain wrapper that she buzzes into the backroom. He tries to talk to the owner, Geiger, but he’s not available.
Going across the street to a rival bookstore, Marlowe charms a description of Geiger out of the more knowledgeable girl there (look for a young Dorothy Malone here0, and afterward settles down to wait. When a man matching that description exits the shop, with his driver, Philip follows them and again watches and waits. During the evening, he sees a flash, hears two shots, and as he approaches the house, he sees two cars flee the scene. Inside he discovers a rather stoned Carmen Sternwood, and a rather dead Arthur Geiger.
Marlowe returns Carmen to the bosom of her family, and then returns to the scene of the crime to discover that the corpse is gone. He notifies the police, while still pursuing his own investigation, which leads to, among other places, a high stakes gambling joint, and low class hoods. Marlowe has to figure out what’s what and who’s who, and hopefully not lose his life in the process.
Just before watching The Big Sleep, I read the novel by Raymond Chandler, so I was probably pre-disposed to catch discrepancies. Some made sense to me, some not so much. For example, in the book Vivian Sternwood is Mrs. Rusty Regan, but that was changed and I don’t know why, because it changes the General’s interest in Regan and his whereabouts. In the book, Marlowe finds Carmen in Geiger’s house, stark naked and sitting on a throne, but I realize that would never have flown back then. Same for when she talks her way into Marlowe’s apartment and is waiting naked in his bed. Censors would have had a cow, I’m sure.
Other than that, it’s fairly faithful to the book. Well, excluding the part where you never do find out the significance of the book/books and the list (Geiger has a lending library of pornography, and the coded list is of his clients). Also, the man who avenged Geiger’s death, without giving away any movie spoilers, is Geiger’s lover, so that was totally glossed over.
Bogart is magnificent as Marlowe, I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. Martha Vickers is competent as Carmen, but I didn’t see Lauren Bacall as Vivian. In fact, I think she’d have made a better Carmen, but it’s a no-brainer why that casting occurred, since she and Bogie were either married at that point, or at least together. In fact, a romantic aspect was added that didn’t really exist in the book, basically because of that. To me, that’s on a par with something they did in the film Evita, where a song that didn’t even belong to Evita was taken from another character and given to her, basically because Madonna played her.
Other than all that, though, it’s a very enjoyable film, well written and well directed and pretty well acted. True film noir and a classic. I don’t think anyone but Bogie could have carried it off that well, though. A definite keeper for your collection, worth revisiting on a regular basis. And don’t forget to look for Elisha Cook Jr. doing what he does best in a secondary role.